12 Oldest Places in America
Just how far back in time does human achievement go in this country? We challenged ourselves to find out and in the process discovered everything from a prehistoric settlement near St. Louis to a pirate bar in New Orleans.
Oldest Church: San Miguel Mission c. 1710
Although Santa Fe, N.M., can feel a bit like a studio backlot at times, there is some authenticity under all that freshly spread adobe. This is America's oldest capital city, after all, and the third oldest surviving European settlement (after St. Augustine, Fla., and Jamestown, Va.). Minus a few years of Indian occupation and partial razing during the Pueblo Revolt, serene San Miguel Chapel has stood as a compact call to Catholicism from the day Spain planted its founding flag right until U.S. annexation. The Spanish Colonial church was finished in 1710 (it replaced a 1626 chapel that was destroyed in a fire) and anchors the Barrio de Analco Historic District. Mass is still given on Sundays within its cool confines, beneath thick wooden beams and in front of a gorgeously carved wooden reredos. 401 Old Santa Fe Trail, Santa Fe, N.M., 505/983-3974.
Oldest Bar: Jean Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, c. 1722
Nightlife is a murky business—especially when you're dealing with pirates and smugglers, which is how this bar got its start. The squat townhouse is the oldest structure to operate as a bar in the States, and it may even be the country's oldest continuously operating bar, period. Located on the far end of Bourbon Street, in New Orleans, it's the Vieux Carré's best remaining example of French briquette-entre-poteaux construction. And the establishment has weathered the centuries, first as a grog-soaked home base to nefarious privateers Jean and Pierre Lafitte, a gay bar in the 1950s, and the laid-back, candle-lit pub that survives today. 941 Bourbon St., New Orleans, La., 504/593-9761, lafittesblacksmithshop.com.
Oldest Continuously Operating Museum: Peabody Essex Museum, 1799
Back when museums were officially known as a "cabinet of natural and artificial curiosities," a group of Salem, Mass., sea captains founded the East India Marine Society with a specific charter provision to collect such specimens. That legacy is now the nation's oldest continuingly operating museum. (The Charleston Museum in South Carolina was founded in 1773, but had a period of closure and didn't open to the public until 1824.) Today, you can see the Peabody Essex Museum's 1.8 million pieces of maritime, Asian, African, Indian, and Oceanic art plus 22 historic buildings, including the Qing Dynasty Yin Yu Tang house. East India Square, 161 Essex St., Salem, Mass., 866/745-1876, pem.org. $15 admission.
Oldest Public Garden: United States Botanic Garden, 1820
Perhaps it was all that cherry tree business, but George Washington himself had a vision of a modern capital with a botanic garden to teach the importance of plants to the young nation. This didn't become a reality until 1820, when President Monroe and an act of Congress created the United States Botanic Garden on the grounds of the Capitol building. Today's permanent location—a three-acre plot adjacent to the Mall and southwest of the Capitol—was established in 1933. Open every day of the year, the site allows visitors to explore a butterfly and rose garden outside and jungle, desert, primeval, and special exhibitions inside the gorgeous 1933 glass conservatory. 100 Maryland Ave. SW, Washington, D.C., 202/225-8333, usbg.gov.
Oldest National Park: Yellowstone National Park, 1872
With a flourish of the pen, Ulysses S. Grant changed where kids spend their summer vacations forever when he created the world's first national park. Yellowstone was made up of pristine wilderness straddling the Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho territories. (Tthey weren't states back in 1872, and the federal government oversaw the park until the National Parks Service was created in 1916.) Today, Yellowstone continues to be the system's bubbly, geyser-riffic, and wildlife-filled emblem of eco-consciousness. There is some controversy when it comes to which park is technically the oldest, though. Hot Springs National Park, southwest of Little Rock, Ark., was made a "government reservation" back in 1832, but didn't join the parks system until 1921. 307/344-7381, nps.gov. $25 per vehicle.
Oldest Skyscraper: Wainwright Building, 1892
When you are done looking at the prehistoric mounds at Cahokia, head into downtown St. Louis for a more modern pile. It's easy to define today's skyscrapers—just look up! But sussing out their more diminutive ancestors can be like figuring out if your great-great-great-great-uncle Jeremiah fought in the Civil War—and might bring architects to just that. One thing all experts can agree on: Skyscrapers must have a load-bearing steel frame. For that, Louis Sullivan's Wainwright Building, in downtown St. Louis, rises as America's oldest surviving specimen. (Chicago's Home Insurance Building, from 1884, was technically the first, but it was razed in 1931.) Dwarfed today by its neighbors, the Wainwright Building's 10 stories of red brick aesthetically defined what modern office buildings were to be in both form and construction. 705 Chestnut St., St. Louis, Mo.